Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing

The best tales climax when the heroes must choose between what they’ve learned is right and an easy route to what they thought they wanted. In fiction, such moral dilemmas reveal character. When a woman who only ever wanted to be queen realizes that someone else is better suited to the throne, will she still take the crown?

Everyone who enjoys games such as Dungeons & Dragons likes making choices and seeing the outcomes. Many of those players also enjoy exploring and revealing their characters. So in roleplaying, moral problems may rank as the most interesting and most revealing. In the Dungeon magazine article, “Temptations and Dilemmas,” printed in issue 148, Wolfgang Baur writes about the joy of posing dilemmas. “They make the player really engage with their characters and the game world. Sweet sweet perfection: all you have to do is let the PCs wrangle about it for a while.”

Creating moral choices in D&D proves harder than creating similar dilemmas in stories. In fiction, moral choices often force characters to pick between what’s right and what’s easy. But D&D characters rarely make decisions alone. They face choices as a party, and these groups inevitably mix rogues and paladins.

More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ moral outlooks. These make popular character perspectives because they bring escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.

In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating.

In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating.

Choices between right and easy inevitably split a party’s rogues and paladins.

“Assassins, poisoners, sneak thieves, death priests, drug smugglers, necromancers, diabolists, and warlocks make it tough for more heroic, lawful, or good characters to look away or condone their smuggling, sneaking, theft, magical abuses, and so on,” Wolfgang writes. “There’s a dilemma for the party every time a character crosses the line and does something that another, more moral character might find unforgivable.”

In D&D, rogues and paladins must find ways to work together or the game falls apart. “If you wind up with that one paladin singled out and forced to choose to compromise his character just to keep playing, you have a problem.” See A Roleplaying Game Player’s Obligation.

So in D&D, moral dilemmas must avoid posing an unsavory-but-easy solution as an option. Instead these problems must force players to weigh which of two, imperfect choices brings the most benefit—or the least corruption. In “5 Tips on How to Design Diabolical Dilemmas,” Johnn Four imagines starting the party with a simple job to capture a war criminal, and then adds moral complications. What if the players discover that the elderly criminal now repents by running an orphanage? If the players decide to take him to justice, what if they learn that the alleged crimes may have saved a village? Do the players still bring the man to execution? None of these choices make the adventure easier for players, but they all land the players in thorny dilemmas that reveal characters.

Johnn suggests developing moral dilemmas by starting with a simple choice and asking questions that help you imagine complications.

  • Who gets hurt?
  • Who escapes justice?
  • Who undeservedly benefits?

While moral dilemmas benefit the game, you can press too hard to create them. Players enjoy difficult choices in balance with uncomplicated situations where their power lets the good guys win. Often players use their ingenuity to solve a moral dilemma without any tough choices. Players savor those victories.

Even when DMs work to foster moral dilemmas, most D&D games only occasionally feature such situations. But one sort of quandary appears frequently, and it’s awful.

Blame co-creator Gary Gygax and his adventure The Keep on the Borderlands (1979). D&D’s first Basic Set included this adventure, so through the 80s, the keep easily ranked as the game’s most played scenario. In a reprint, D&D creative director Mike Mearls writes, “In its 32 pages, Keep on the Borderlands provides the clearest, most concise definition of D&D that you can find.” The keep showed countless dungeon masters how to create a D&D adventure, and mostly it set a good example.

What awful moral dilemma appears 8 times in this classic?

When Gary wrote the keep, he aimed to create an infestation of D&D’s various evil humanoids: kobolds, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls, and lizard men. Gary favored applying some natural order to his imaginary world, which included various young monsters incapable of fighting.

After slaughtering the orcs’ parents, do you put their infants to the sword? As a player who favored the paladin type, I wanted to right wrongs, not debate whether to murder young. The rogue-types in the party would open the 1977 Monster Manual and point to the word “evil” beside a pig-faced monster, but I had no taste for the baby-orc dilemma. I want to smite evildoers, not kill helpless foes. I’m far from alone in that sentiment. Worse, young non-combatants appear in 8 of the keep’s locations, and then in the countless adventures that follow the keep’s example.

I recommend contriving situations that leave helpless foes out of reach. Instead of populating the Caves of Chaos with generations of humanoids, why not imagine war parties locked in a standoff?

Even though the baby-orc problem rates as something to avoid, other dilemmas can enrich the game. M.T. Black’s adventure The Lich Queen’s Begotten ends with an interesting variant on the question of whether to kill an innocent destined for evil. Both times I ran this adventure, a party of mixed paladin and rogue types chose to protect the innocent—not necessarily the easier choice. Both groups wanted a follow up adventure where they worked to thwart the innocent creature’s evil destiny.

That’s the sort of choice that makes heroes.

17 thoughts on “Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing

  1. LookieLouE1707

    “When a woman who only ever wanted to be queen realizes that her incestuous lover is more popular than she is, will she wreck things with a temper tantrum, thus setting herself up to get killed off in the next episode?”

  2. Ilbranteloth

    So the dilemma you highlight from my perspective is people playing “classes” rather than “characters.”

    I love moral dilemmas, even the baby orc ones. But our campaign is well grounded in the world, where the characters belong and behave like actually people, not a class. In addition, we don’t allow evil PCs. So there may be some question of morals between characters, and how things should be done, they are all on the side of good and have some common ground. James Bond is an assassin, Jack Sparrow is a thief and a liar, Han Solo and Indiana Jones are both flavors of rogues, but they all work with people that have much higher” moral standards.

    When you play a well rounded character with real connections to the world they inhabit, the idea of a thief, assassin and a paladin can’t fall on the same side of a moral dilemma is a fallacy. Indeed, sometimes the dilemma is focused on a single character, but as characters who experience their challenges and grow together, these dilemmas are part of what builds the party in addition to the characters.

    I think the baby orc examples are not only there for natural order reasons. I think they were there in part specifically for sparking these types of discussions/dilemmas in the game. As war game enthusiasts familiar with medieval history, there is no doubt that the debate over what to do with surrendering armies was something they were familiar with. It was a central dilemma for the characters in Saving Private Ryan too. I think it’s one of those things that is addressed early on. The baby orc dilemma is a variation of that.

    With regard to monsters the dilemma is a simple one. Are they, well, monsters. If they are little more than a disease, then there’s no need to act anything out, you just declare that is the nature of the world and you will dispatch all of them. But it sets the stage in what was the first adventure for many players (and DMs) that there is (or can be) more to this game than simply killing monsters.

    A common question/concern I see from many DMs is, “how do I get my players to roleplay,” or, “my players won’t engage in roleplaying encounters.” But to me that’s a red flag. Everything is a “roleplaying encounter.” People equate roleplaying to acting. But it’s really just making decisions as another person – as your character. Combat is still roleplaying, but the complexity of the mechanics often draw people into the game element rather than remaining in character.

    It’s easy to make an encounter to engage the combat rules. But you need to partner with the players and they need to put some work into personalities, morals, and motivations to make roleplaying easier. From the DM standpoint you take whatever threads (minimal or otherwise) to pose difficult questions for them, and to help them further develop their character’s character.

    1. Matthew Campbell

      I amusingly ran into this dilemma in the reverse. I was playing a rogue who tried to stop the paladin from killing Goblin children. To be fair, the Paladin was more or less an Oathbreaker, though I was playing a bit against class stereotypes myself with my Rogue being a lawful good secret agent-type character. So it’s a bit unsurprising that James Bond and Darth Vader would have slightly different answers to moral questions.

  3. alphastream

    A friend of mine who used to write for Living Greyhawk said to me once that “a great adventure teaches you something about your character.” Over the years, that advice has stood the test of time for me. Great adventures help me better see my character’s personality and where they stand, and touch me emotionally or at a visceral level in some way.

    Since that time, I’ve tried to write adventures where decisions (often but not always moral dilemas) help you understand your character better. Maybe you swap bodies with someone else, so you see yourself from the outside and separate your personality from your frame… who are you? Maybe you bring a spirit into yourself… what part of that personality do you accept or reject, and what is it displacing? Maybe you face a tough choice… do you bring a child into battle if that child is an artifact, do you sacrifice a few to save many? Maybe you have to chose between a sure thing that isn’t so sweet, and worse odds for a chance at something better?

    I think the key to writing moral dilemas, and to ensuring that your character grows because of them, is that they are tough. Not tough in the abstract (do I murder orc children?). That’s tough as a subject and has historical weight and moral weight, but it lacks gameplay weight. I wouldn’t personally touch that subject (I don’t care for mass murder), so let’s instead talk about a decision on whether to stop to help an innocent or instead finish off the recurring villain. This only truly works, at a gaming table, if it’s a hard choice as a game as well as morally. Gamers are smart, and they have trouble ignoring the meta. Ideally the scene has game weight either way. The innocent might present value – maybe they are important in some way (last of the noble line, the person who can talk the orc tribes into accepting peace). The villain could be on their way to do evil, and here and now could be stopped. When I write such scenes I find friends I trust and I present the scenes and ask them which is better. If one is clearly better, I go back and tweak until they feel even from a game standpoint. Then I try to write the words that will heighten the moral angle so it feels like a gut punch. It’s hard to achieve, but I’ve had the fortune to play in several scenarios that truly nailed that.

  4. rasmusnord01

    In our last session, the moral debate was whether to execute a ‘prisoner of war’. Was she too dangerous to let live and could never be trusted? Or was she too useful to die and could be put under a Geas to work with the group and the community they protect? The group has a ‘designated leader’, which can help resolve situations (in the right player hands), and keep the discussion from taking too long, and he punted the problem upstairs to the authority of the governor of the community.

    I think a couple of things can help avoid the ‘baby-orc issue’ becoming a problem:
    1) Have a leader of the group (as I said)
    2) Avoid that showing mercy comes back and bites the players – at least not very often
    3) Make “evil” humanoids more nuanced

  5. Dan

    The thing with your example from Keep on the Borderlands is that Gygax never intended for it to be a moral dilemma. He assumed that all party members would be agreed on cleaning the place out, paladins included – when asked about it on the internet in latter years, he was somewhat incredulous that it even came up, stating that a properly-played paladin should view justice from a medieval perspective and would take the stance that “nits beget lice.”

    1. Steven Warble

      A common question when we begin a D&D campaign is whether we are playing “medieval” morality or “modern” morality characters. A medieval character would kill a bandit, a baby orc, or probably even a baby bandit without much moral qualm. A modern character needs to examine that choice more closesly.

    2. greatwyrmgold

      …Add that to the list of reasons I’m glad I never played under Gygax. “Yes, the proper follower of Justice would slaughter all orc babies on the principle that they are orcs. We are not going to examine this line of reasoning. What cultural context around the depiction of races in fantasy paralleling the depiction and treatment of human races in non-fantasy?” Pardon me, I need to read some OotS as a palette-cleanser.

  6. greatwyrmgold

    I don’t see anything inherently wrong with a party being divided over a moral dilemma; in fact, if everyone in the party agrees on the best solution, I’d call it a failed dilemma.
    The problem with the “right vs. easy” dilemma is that it’s not actually a hard decision to make. You the player probably won’t have to exert much effort to pull off the “hard but right” plan, and you might even be rewarded with a tough extra boss or something (and if you don’t find something like that fun, you probably won’t have much fun with a game like D&D).

    I personally like dilemmas which pit what a character cares about against something else—morals, greater party goals, ideally something else the character cares about. One example comes to mind is when (for reasons to complex to explain succinctly) the party was making a deal with a (greatly weakened) devil. One character added a footnote asking for the devil to let that character know how his little sister (the only member of his family he liked) was doing. The devil came back and said she was in danger…and that if the character would sacrifice some of the ogres he was going to kill anyway, the devil would have the power to save her.
    Obviously, sacrificing creatures is wrong (even if they’re ogres), and helping a fiend come into power is also wrong. But pitting this against the character’s loved one provided an inner conflict for the character. Do the right thing and let his sister die, or save her by sacrificing some people he would kill anyways? There are valid arguments for each side, and that’s what makes it interesting.

    1. greatwyrmgold

      On rereading the article, I’m not sure if the “unwanted kind” is “paladin vs. rogue” in general or “kill the baby orc?” in specific. If it’s the latter, well, duh. If you’re including moral dilemmas that even Mass Effect knockoffs with lame moral systems wouldn’t stoop to, you aren’t even trying to include moral decisions in your game. You’re testing whether your players are a specific type of clod.

    2. greatwyrmgold

      My opinion on this situation has changed somewhat due to a recent session where my ethical concerns over murdering sahuagin noncombatants (Why do you do this, Paizo?) for necromancy materials went entirely ignored by the rest of my group. This killed the mood for me, for the rest of the session and beyond.
      Intraparty moral conflict only works if all involved parties are willing to engage in it. Otherwise, someone’s just gonna get stomped on.

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